I was recently visiting the coast and wanted to experience some of the fresh foods available that you can really only get when on the coast of the States. I am a great fan of seafood. Especially shellfish. I could eat my weight in Lobster or crab (don’t go there, you don’t need to know how much that is in actuality), and not even flinch. I was looking at the cost of the items and was so taken aback. When I was growing up the price of Crab and Lobster were a bit pricey, but not astronomical! The cost of one lobster would have eaten up my whole dinner budget.
There was a time in our history when Lobster was considered a trash fish and was fed to prisoners. It was food for pigs and goats, and was eaten only by paupers as a necessity. It was so poorly thought of that is was used to denigrate British soldiers. The term Lobsterback was a derogatory word to describe the redcoat wearing British soldiers during the revolutionary war.
Here is the rub…Would you eat a grasshopper? How about a tarantula? Would you consider them to be an elegant indulgent meal? How about Lobster? Here in the United States we consume more than 20 million of these crustaceans in a year. And you may not have suspected this but the lobster, while considered to be a delicacy in the world is a member of the Invertebrate Phylum Arthropoda family…just like spiders and insects. So every time a master chef, be it your mother or a world class chef, presents you with a lobster-based dish you are eating a member of the same family of insects and spiders. I wonder if you were presented with a tarantula steamed with butter and lemon if you would be so enamored with a dish like you are with Lobster prepared the same way. Okay I’m digressing. I love lobster and so far I’ve never had a dish of lobster that I didn’t like. Steamed, scampi, Newburg, or Bisque…Love it.
Lobster holds a place of honor on countless tables, feasts, and romantic dinners. And it has for well over a century. Lobster trappers even call them by the matter-of-fact name of bugs. The special appeal that characterizes lobster today wasn’t always so, but it wasn’t because of it’s less appetizing cousins. It was because they were so abundant they weren’t considered to be exceptional. If you read accounts from the pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower, they all had something to say about the abundance of the lobsters in the bay of the Plymouth Colony, which was so full of them that they had eaten so many lobsters, they found themselves so satiated with them that they could no longer stomach them. They are described as “big, fat and luscious”, but they ate so many of them for so long, they felt sick of just the sight of them. Can you imagine being sick at the sight of Lobster?
Lobster was so abundant and easy to come by that if there were lobster shells seen or found around a persons home it was looked upon as a sign of poverty and degradation. The lobster and it’s shells were used a fertilizer. But as with all things times change and abundance becomes a barren loss. In the mid-19th century, Homarus Americanus (The American, or Maine Lobster) went from being used as fertilizer to an indulgence in the United States. This transformation and the secret to lobster becoming and indulgence was coal. And, although, you can barbecue lobster for sure, I’m talking about the fuel that powers steam-engine locomotives. That’s right the industrial age made it easier to transport perishable foods like lobster, crab, and shellfish, to places inland like Chicago. The expense of transporting that food added to the prestige and romance of the travel added to the cachet of the exotic foods like lobster.
Now if you think about the work and mess of cleaning and eating a food like lobster in public would make this less likely for people to enjoy their lobster, you would be mistaken. During this time labor was inexpensive, and a lot of the dishes that were being served that featured lobster were made with lobster that was cleaned, picked and chopped in the kitchen. Victorian ladies didn’t have to go through the ordeal of the messy business of lobster eating as the dishes being served were already made. Molded Lobster Salad, Lobster Newburg, and Lobster Scampi were already made, and didn’t require touching the shell of the lobster at all.
Lobster has also kept its informal dining experience as well as its luxurious persona. There is always the lobster shack experience you’ll find in coastal New England. Most of these types of business’ have their origins in the early 1900’s in Maine. The wives of the Lobstermen (trappers), looking for a way to add to the family revenue, would have begun cooking some of the fresh catch right there on the dock for the locals. There were small enterprises that have since evolved into much loved and popular places to dine. There is no longer a stigma attached to lobster.
One of the most popular places to visit while on the New England coast is Bayley’s lobster shacks. The earliest shack that can document its history is Bayley’s Lobster Pound found in Scarborough, Maine. Steve Bayley lobstered to supplement his income that he earned from his job at a clam-packing plant were he was working in 1916. After he supplied nearby restaurants and markets with the lobsters he trapped, if he had more than they needed, he would pack the lobsters in a suitcase and take a train to Portland and sell the over catch to a local market there. He got the idea to cut out the middleman and opened his own shack where he began to sell the simple dishes of steamed lobster and lobster rolls (a recipe that doesn’t have a founder, but might be one of his inventions) right there in his shack. Since that time you can find a Bayley’s in most New England coastal towns.
High end restaurant Delmonico’s is also central to the lobster story. Delmonico’s has been in the restaurant business— off and on—since 1827. Delmonico’s in New York was one of the first fine restaurants to serve lobster. Its signature lobster dish was prepared with cream, butter, eggs and Madeira. It was introduced to the Delmonico brother by a sea captain, Ben Wenberg, in 1876. Lobster á la Wenberg was one of the most popular dishes that Delmonico’s served, but the Delmonico brothers and Wenberg had a falling-out the new specialty dish was no longer available on the menu. Patrons became vocal in their displeasure that the item was no longer available to them that it returned to the menu with a letter shift in the name, thus Lobster á la Newberg came to be.
If the overstuffed lobster eating Puritans could see how Lobster has gone from trash to haute, with the help of a little melted butter, they might find themselves a bit shell-shocked.
And just for a bit of fun: Lobsters aren’t red until they are cooked, due to the protein in their shells. They are actually bright blue, yellow or green. To keep a Lobster it must be over 3 ¼ inches long, but can’t be over 5 inches long. When lobsters mate, the eggs aren’t fertilized right away. The female decides when that will happen.
I started this telling you about my lobster buying trip for a dinner. I ended up buying a couple of tails and made lobster rolls. If you are interested in the recipe you’ll find it in this issue of the TBA.